Thomas C. Alber

Born: January 5, 1954 | Tokyo, JP

Thomas C. Alber grew up as an American in post World War II Japan and moved to Los Angeles in 1964. While attending the University of California, Santa Cruz Alber worked in Anthony L. Fink’s enzyme mechanism laboratory. As a graduate student, he did research at various laboratories including those at the University of California, San Diego, Berkeley, Oxford, and MIT. After earning his PhD, Alber started his postdoctoral research with Brian W. Matthews at the University of Oregon, before moving on to the University of Utah and then University of California, Berkeley. These moves allow him to reflect on the ways in which university science model differs at a range of institutions and varies from science in other nations.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0499
No. of pages: 265
Minutes: 750

Interview Sessions

15 March, 9 April, 16, 23, 28-29 July, 15 December 1993
University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California

Abstract of Interview

Thomas C. Alber grew up as an American in post World War II Japan and had to deal with issues related to his bilingualism and biculturalism. After moving to Los Angeles with his mother in 1964, Alber was encouraged in all areas of study, including the sciences, through his involvement with the Independent Program School at University High School in Los Angeles. This unique high school experience helped Alber choose the University of California, Santa Cruz for his undergraduate studies because of its non-traditional structure. At Santa Cruz, Alber worked in Anthony L. Fink’s enzyme mechanism laboratory and pursued an opportunity to perform research with Gregory A. Petsko at Wayne State University. his research experience solidified his future interests in chemistry and biochemistry over other fields, such as the history of science. With a Danforth Foundation Graduate Fellowship, Alber undertook graduate research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), first under Alexander Rich and later under Petsko (when Petsko joined the MIT faculty). traveled as a graduate student to do research at various laboratories including those at the University of California, San Diego, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Oxford. After earning his PhD, Alber started his postdoctoral research with Brian W. Matthews at the University of Oregon. Since Matthews was involved with the interdisciplinary Institute of Molecular Biology, Alber continued his pattern of research and study in a non-traditional setting. While finishing his postdoctoral research, Alber authored “Mutational effects on Protein Stability,” in the Annual Review of Biochemistry in 1989. In this article, he proposed departing from the traditional model system of structural protein research and instead stressed the importance of all possible hydrogen-binding sites, the external amino acids on the rigid portion of the active site, the relative unimportance of the so-called ‘floppy part,’ and the necessity for flexibility in a protein. Alber’s movement from the University of Oregon to the University of Utah and then on to the University of California, Berkeley allowed him to reflect on the American model of university science, the ways in which that model differs at a range of institutions, and the ways in which it varies from science in other nations. Alber’s oral history ends with a discussion of the ways in which Alber’s laboratory life changed over a ten-month period in 1993 right after he joined the faculty at Berkeley.

Education

Year Institution Degree Discipline
1976 University of California, Santa Cruz BA
1981 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD

Professional Experience

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

1981
Research Associate

University of Oregon

1982 to 1987
Research Associate

University of Utah

1987 to 1992
Assistant Professor, Associate Professor

University of California, Berkeley

1992 to 1994
Associate Professor

Honors

Year(s) Award
1975

University of California President's Undergraduate Fellowship

1976

Graduate Fellowship, Danforth Foundation

1983

Postdoctoral Fellowship, Helen Hay Whitney Foundation

1985

Fellowship, Medical Research Foundation of Oregon

1988 to 1992

Pew Scholar in the Biomedical Sciences

Table of Contents

Childhood in Japan
1

Growing up in Japan. Difficulties associated with bilingualism andbiculturalism. Moving to the United States after parents divorced. Adjusting to the United States.

Secondary Education
26

High School education in Bel Air, California. Participating in theIndependent Program School. Love of nature and wildlife (includinga brief description of Eugene, Oregon).

College Education
38

Choosing University of California, Santa Cruz. Exposure to the History and Philosophy of Science. Joining Anthony L. Fink's laboratory. General experience of undergraduates in a research laboratory.

Undergraduate Research
54

Enzyme reactions and x-ray crystallography in low-temperature organicsolvents. Research with Greg Petsko at Wayne State University.

Graduate School, MIT
63

Choosing MIT for graduate school. Switching from Alexander H. Rich to Greg Petsko as an advisor. Political involvement with respect to recombinant DNA.

Principle Investigator
84

Patents and patentable work.

Graduate School, MIT
89

Research on low-temperature x-ray crystallography at the University of California, San Diego. Research at the University of California, Berkeley. Research at Oxford University.

Trip to China
97

Visits China with mother. Views on Chinese science versus American and British science.

Post-Doctoral Research, University of Oregon
116

Choosing Brian W. Matthews' laboratory. Why he stayed for so long. Difficulties of finding a faculty position. Meeting his future wife.

Principle Investigator, University of Utah
134

Research progression from graduate school, through post-doc, to hisown lab. Similarities and Differences. Pew Funding and its benefits. Different scientific atmospheres at different institutions

Principle Investigator, University of Utah and UC Berkley
148

Teaching experiences and expectations. Children and tenure. Women in faculty positions.

Index
260

About the Interviewer

Neil D. Hathaway